In 2009 a low budget science fiction film called Moon debuted at the Sundance film festival and went on to gross a modest five million dollars at the box office. That was barely enough money to cover the film’s budget, but it was popular with an influential crowd of film goers and seemed to become an instant cult classic. I wasn’t as infatuated with the film as some, but I had a lot of respect for its low key aesthetic and the command that first time director Duncan Jones was able to assert over the movie. At the very least the film was able to get Jones on Hollywood’s radar and allowed him to make a bigger budget follow-up, another cleverly contained science fiction movie about the effects of technology on an individual thrust into a cruel situation with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
One could say that the film is like Groundhog Day except that instead of reliving an entire day, the main character is reliving eight minutes. Those eight minutes occurred on a Chicago-area commuter train and culminated in the exploding of a bomb that killed everyone on board the train. There’s more to it than that though, for one thing the main character isn’t reliving his own life, rather he is reliving the life of someone else who he’s jumped into “Quantum Leap” style. The technology allowing this is called “source code” and it’s the only science fiction element of this film which otherwise seems to be set in the present. The man doing the “jumping” is Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a bewildered pilot who was in Afghanistan before he began jumping into the lives of dead people. He’s being told by a commanding officer on a computer screen named Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that his mission in these eight minute jumps is to find out who was behind the bombings so that a second attack later in the day could be averted.
I was relieved that in Stevens’ second run through the eight minute sequence that he seemed to be ahead of the audience, willing to simply do his mission, that he understood the fact that he simply needed to accomplish the mission and disregard the ghosts around him. It was refreshing to know that I wouldn’t have to sit through an hour of Jake Gyllenhaal being confused about his situation and taking forever to get the job done because he couldn’t wrap his head around the science fiction concept that the audience understood in the first twenty minutes. Whenever movies waste their time with nonsense like that it can be infuriating and I was glad to see that this movie wasn’t going down that road… or was it. As it turns out I had given the movie too much credit too soon. As soon as Gyllenhaal realizes that he’s actually leaping into the mind of someone and not living in a computer simulation he turns into exactly the idiot I was afraid he’d be, wasting precious time trying to affect individual characters rather than simply getting his job done.
The thing about this movie is that the central mystery (who set the bomb) is painfully easy for Gyllenhaal to solve and when he finally focuses in on the objective at hand he gets his answer in about five minutes, but it takes forever for him to do that because he keeps getting sidetracked by irrelevant nonsense, particularly the brunette sitting in front of him named Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) every time he begins the eight minute sequence. It seems to take forever for the character to realize that he can’t save this woman or anyone else using the technology he’s in and he keeps on inexplicably trying. I would be more forgiving of this if it hadn’t been established that real lives were at stake outside of the simulation, but that is established early, and you can’t help but get angry at this character when he puts those lives at risk as he wastes time chasing simulated pussy instead of getting his job done.
This dichotomy of putting up with Stevens’ time wasting bullshit isn’t so bad in the film’s first half, where you’re still sort of wrapped up in the mystery and kind of enjoying the concept. The film almost feels like a video game (and not in a pejorative sense) in that you’re watching the character try out different solutions until you finally reach the correct sequence that will give you the “good” ending. But a lot of this fun really just exits the room in the film’s second half, which is consumed by rank and implausible sentimentality. I don’t want to give anything away, but a key side character makes a decision for entirely sappy reasons toward the end of the film which I am quite simply philosophically opposed to. This feels like a complete 180 from the ambiguous morality that Jones introduced into Moon that I can only assume he was trying to give Hollywood what he thought it wanted.
I suppose I’m coming off a bit more negative than I mean to be, possibly because the movie was a lot more enjoyable as I watched it than it was in retrospect. There really is a pretty good concept at the center of the film and there are a number of parts to the movie that really are enjoyable. Gyllenhaal gives a good, if not overly special performance and the rest of the cast is pretty good as well. Jones does a good job making you care about some of the personalities on the train and there is a certain weight to knowing that all these people you’re coming to know are, in fact, doomed. The film also has a rather paradoxical ending that is at once sappy and also rather grim depending on the mindset you use while watching it. For all my reservations, I still kind of feel compelled to recommend it given that its main competition right now includes the likes of Hop, Battle: Los Angeles, and Red Riding Hood. But in an environment with more options I’d probably delegate this to rental status. It’s worth watching in spite of its flaws if only to keep your eye on Duncan Jones, who I still think has potential, but if he’s not careful he could easily turn into the next M. Night Shyamalan.
*** out of Four